If life were more like a cable television reality show, then a designer, a carpenter, and a willing set of neighbors would show up at your property to make it over in 48 hours—for less than $1,000. But since Home Depot is not likely to sponsor a “Trading Spaces: Multifamily” anytime soon, it is no wonder that property owners are looking to build buildings today that will withstand the technology and lifestyle advances of the coming decades.

It's not an easy task. Countless numbers of barely 10-year-old buildings have already been retrofitted for one technology or another, and given the speed of technological advancement, buildings of the future could be similarly doomed. “Wireless, for one, is evolving more rapidly than wired. Wired changes every five years and wireless every two,” said Greg Hardt, information systems coordinator at ERC Properties, an integrated real estate development firm with properties in 11 states, based in Fort Smith, Ark., who says the rapid pace of change makes it likely that today's cool solutions will be obsolete tomorrow.

Further complicating things are the so-called “experts” with their widely varying visions of future residential buildings. Will they be wrapped in solar panels made from denim-like material? Will they be constructed only from recycled materials? (If composite material is good enough for airplanes, then apartment buildings must be fair game.) Perhaps the shiny towers of the future will have electricity-generating windmills on their roofs and lobbies with more biometric gadgets than Sydney Bristow of “Alias.”

But once you get past the futuristic chatter, a few truths emerge. First, multifamily owners and developers are going to “stop building buildings for amenities,” says David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C. Instead of focusing solely on traditional amenities like clubhouses and pools, the buildings of the future also will be greener, safer, and wired (or unwired) to meet the burgeoning bandwidth demands of voice, data, and video-heavy applications.

Wireless Water Watch Environmentally friendly buildings won't be just a suggestion a decade from now; they will be a requirement. Lawmakers already are calling for new buildings to generate as much, if not more, power than they consume and reduce the waste they produce and the resources they use.

One way to accomplish that is through wireless submetering. While submetering is not a new concept, the automation of the process is starting to catch on, for convenience, conservation, and future possibilities.

It works like this: Sensors are placed on meters, and the data they collect is automatically transmitted generally through wireless radios. “With the old technology, if a meter went down, the whole building went down,” says Heather Campbell, spokesperson for Archstone-Smith. The company has begun installing Motorola IMR transmitters, which collect data about water usage, and Motorola's MOSCAD, a radio-based wide area network, at its properties to automate the meter reading and data acquisition process. “That won't happen with the Motorola solution,” Campbell says of the old glitches, “and it lasts longer—15 years rather than five years.”

It also reduces the amount of water residents use, which is a key consideration for many localities, particularly in the West, as they consider new residential developments. Automated submetering can send “conservation numbers way up,” Campbell says. “We've found when people have to pay for their own water, they use 30 [percent] to 40 percent less.”

This form of automation can be added to existing properties—as older submetering technology wears out at its apartment buildings, Archstone-Smith is replacing it with Motorola's product—but it's better to have it be part of the structure from the start. New buildings that include such technology from the beginning are likely to save money and can avoid any obstacles that might interfere with wireless transmissions. (As with everything else, retrofitting a building's fixed network to include wireless systems can be expensive.) Today's preparations for wireless can also open the door to tomorrow's property management applications. Those sensors could be used to control utility consumption, adjust the climate in individual units, and monitor appliances with condensers (such as refrigerators and air conditioners) to provide proactive maintenance.

Staying Safe Security, too, is drawing attention from property owners who want to create safer environments for residents and apartment firms' own IT resources. “Security is going to be huge,” predicts Dan Haefner, senior vice president and CIO at Lane Company in Atlanta, Ga.